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Do Not Be Fooled: The “Self-Driving” Car Doesn’t Drive Itself

Over-reliance on technology that is not intended to be used without human attention can be deadly
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Two people died in a car crash in a Tesla on Sunday morning. While many details are yet to be confirmed, the investigators have confirmed that no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of impact. Additionally, the resulting fire required more than 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish because the batteries continued to reignite.

Here at Mind Matters, we want to reiterate to our readers that even though Tesla’s driver assistance system is officially named “Full Self-Driving”, no one should take that to mean that the car can drive itself. We have been fully documenting the problematic nature of Tesla’s self-driving claims for many years.

Recently, the hype coming from Tesla has been so problematic that many other outlets have begun to take notice as well. Car and Driver recently posed the question to its readers: Since the name is so misleading, what should they call Tesla’s technology? The editorial staff at Jalopnik now flatly refuses to refer to Tesla’s technology by its official name because it is so misleading, stating that they will refer to the system from now on as “Tesla’s Level 2 driver-assist system” (an actual self-driving car would be a Level 5 system).

Indeed, it’s not even clear that Tesla itself thinks that its “Full Self-Driving” option will ever be able to drive itself. In an official statement to the California DMV in December, Tesla said of its “Full Self-Driving” feature (internally named “City Streets”),

We will continue to make refinements as necessary, and only after we are fully satisfied with performance, integrity, and safety will we release the feature to the customer fleet. That said, we do not expect significant enhancements in OEDR or other changes to the feature that would shift the responsibility for the entire DDT to the system. As such, a final release of City Streets will continue to be an SAE Level 2, advanced driver-assistance feature.

In other words, the current “Full Self-Driving” beta, even when it is out of beta, will still be a Level 2 driver-assistance feature, and in no way will drive itself.

Elon Musk

Unfortunately, while that is what Tesla tells regulators, that is not the messaging that Tesla tells the public. Elon Musk has implied via Twitter (which is listed as an official communication outlet for Tesla) that drivers should be able to play video games while using the “Full Self-Driving” feature, while telling the DMV that “we do not expect any enhancements…that would shift the responsibility for the entire DDT [dynamic driving task] to the system.” To the public, Musk insinuates that you can play video games instead of driving. To the regulators, Musk asserts that the system is not intended to work that way. 

It is still unclear what exactly happened in the car Sunday morning. However, the fact that no one was in the driver’s seat makes it a fairly logical inference that the owners of the vehicle had assumed the “Full Self-Driving” feature really meant that the car could drive itself. They likely over-relied on technology that was only engineered to work with a fully-attentive driver at the wheel.

If you want to use the driver-assistance feature of Tesla, by all means, do so. But, please, please, don’t consider it a “self-driving” system.

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Do Not Be Fooled: The “Self-Driving” Car Doesn’t Drive Itself